J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Belknap on Blackler’s Battery

Before I get to summarizing my study, let me share this entry from the diary of the Rev. Jeremy Belknap, visting the siege lines on 17 Oct 1775. He described how the Continental Army had equipped two rowboats with small cannon:

This evening, two floating batteries, accompanied with some boats, went down Cambridge River [i.e., the Charles] in order to throw some shot into Boston, to alarm the regular army, and fatigue them with extraordinary duty, and also to endeavor to take a floating battery from them which lay near Boston Neck.

They got within three-quarters of a mile of the bottom of the Common, and the firing began between nine and ten o’clock. They fired about seventeen shot into the town; and then a nine-pounder in one of the batteries split: the cartridges took fire, and blew up the covering, or deck, on which several men were standing.

Captain Blackley [William Blackler], of Marblehead, who commanded the battery, had the calf of his leg shot off, and was blown, with several others, into the water. A Portuguese sailor was so badly wounded in the thigh, that he bled to death before morning; another had his arm broken, and is very dangerous; four others were slightly wounded. The battery was much shattered, and partly sunk. They towed her up the river by morning.

This manoeuvre is not generally approved by thinking people: it seemed to be rather a military frolic than a serious expedition. The camp appears to be a scene of wickedness. The oaths and execrations of the men that went on this frolic were horrid and dreadful.
But really I think they had something to swear about.

I hoped to find hints about that “Portuguese sailor” who served under Capt. Blackler in Samuel Roads’s History and Traditions of Marblehead, which reprinted a roll of the town’s Continental regiment. However, that list of men is undated, so it could have been drawn up after this calamitous attack.

Capt. Blackler’s company included a man named “Manuel Seward”—but that appears to be the “Emmanuel Seward” who married in Marblehead in 1785 and survived to apply for a pension. Another man in the company was named “John Freeto”; he left descendants in Marblehead who went into state politics a century later. But the surname “Freeto” appears in the town’s vital records as early as 1731, so that man was probably not an immigrant.


Byron DeLear said...

Good post—the men on those improvised floating batteries were exceedingly brave and not engaged in folly. Rev. Belknap indicting it as ‘military frolic’ I think misses the real strategic value of probing and harassing enemy positions: accepted tactics in use for centuries with peltasts, skirmishers, etc. A question: in general, during the Siege, did British warships patrol Mystic and the surrounding Boston Harbor environs with relative impunity? I'm aware of the Battle of Chelsea Creek, but I would think that with the King's overwhelming naval power, it would make sense that the regulars had command of the waters, at least until Dorchester was populated with captured Ticonderoga artillery.

J. L. Bell said...

In the early skirmish at Chelsea, I think the provincials got lucky because the captain of H.M.S. Diana wasn’t familiar with the harbor and ran aground. After that the Royal Navy held the mouths of the rivers and the harbor but avoided shallower areas.

The Continental Army had some success with whaleboats raiding harbor islands at night. But these floating batteries seem to have been overreach, as shown by how one was blown up not by British shot but by its own gun. The Americans don't seem to have repeated the experiment.

After the first couple of months, the Royal Navy saw more action along other parts of the American coast, collecting food and trying to stymie privateers. One of Washington’s schooners actually got into Boston harbor and attacked a British vessel late in 1775, but that was the exception.

Brooke said...

I was wondering if "Freeto" is not "Frito" or "Freito" in Portuguese. Although it Freito doesn't strike me as a super common surname but common enough that there might be more than one Freito family in a maritime community.

For what it's worth, in checking on it I found a RootsWeb post that references the family's oral history that the family came from Guernsey. Always love reading your posts.

J. L. Bell said...

It would be interesting to see more about Marblehead's Freetos.

Belknap’s phrase “Portuguese sailor” certainly sounds like an immigrant rather than a British subject of Portuguese descent. But, as I said, there's no guarantee this sailor survived long enough to be listed on the surviving Marblehead rolls. For that matter, I made the assumption that he was in Blackler's company, and that could be wrong, too.